Tel Aviv boardwalk rides are a popular way to get around. Tel Aviv boardwalk rides are a popular way to get around. Tel Aviv boardwalk rides are a popular way to get around the city. (Photo: Richard Foo TH / Flickr)

What makes a bicycle-friendly city?

Portland, Tel Aviv and Copenhagen – perfect cycling towns.

There's more to being a bicycle-friendly city than ample trails and designated traffic lanes. Experts say it's about how much effort a city puts in to make bicycling the primary mode of transportation.

"The best bike cities are places where speeds are slow, space for bicycling is clearly marked and plentiful, and there's lots to see and do along the way – that is, distances between places is not extreme," Steve Clark, the Bicycle Friendly Community specialist for the League of American Bicyclists, told From The Grapevine.

But how does a city accomplish this? We've rounded up some cycling enthusiasts and experts around the world to weigh in on what ingredients are necessary to concoct the perfect "cycle city."

Why drive when you can bike?

If you live in Portland, Ore., chances are you only use your car occasionally or in emergencies, if you own a car at all. This quirky city, known for its hipster leanings and youthful earthiness, has the highest bicycling commuting rate among large U.S. cities and has seen a 234 percent increase in bicycle commuting since 2000, Clark said.

Two people biking on a tandem bike in Portland, OregonBiking in Portland has undergone a surge in popularity in the last 15 years. (Photo: Elly Blue/Flickr)

Anyone who's ever been to the Pacific Northwest knows that the weather, along with the varied topography, can present some challenges. That said, becoming a world leader in bicycling was no easy feat for Portland. So how did they do it?

"Well, they've done what we recommend all cities do – create a comprehensive program," Clark told From The Grapevine. "This means that not only do you build a viable and extensive bicycle network – with on-street bike lanes and routes as well as off-street paths – you also develop and implement strong educational and encouragement programs. We call it the 5 E's: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement and Evaluation."

There's also a sixth "E," which Clark's organization is gradually incorporating into his urban plans: Equity. "Making sure the investments are being made throughout a city, especially those areas where people might have the greatest need for non-auto transportation options," he said.

The lay of the land

In Tel Aviv, a combination of flat terrain and effective land-use policies is paving the way for a successful cycling town. More than 12 percent of its residents commute by bike, putting it among the 10 Most Bicycle Friendly Cities in the World, according to one blog. In the words of Jo Lane, a tour coordinator in Tel Aviv, "it's a biking heaven." It's the reason so many bike touring companies do well there – tourists want to see all of Tel Aviv, and the best way to do that is on a bicycle.

"There are hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes, so you can ride through the entire city without needing to bike on the street even once," Lane told From The Grapevine. "The physical layout of the city is perfect for biking."

Riding bicycles in Tel AvivTel Aviv's flat terrain and clearly marked bike lanes make it an ideal place for bicycling. (Photo: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Its thriving bike-sharing network, Tel-O-Fun, offers more than 150 stations around town. "You just put your credit card in, pick up a bike, and then you bike to wherever you want to, and then you go to the nearest station and put your bike back, and you're charged for that period of time," Lane said. "It's very, very straightforward."

Joel Handelman, a New Jersey native who lived in New York City and Atlanta before moving to Tel Aviv, is one of a growing number of Tel Avivians who don't own a car. He and his wife alternate between cycling and public transit to commute to and from work, and he says he's never been happier. He even makes a point to stop and smell the roses – er, palm trees – as he makes his way around his adopted hometown.

"The scenery here is what makes it really special – the palm trees, the beach, and you really can't beat the weather," he said.

And as for accessibility? "The bike lanes are very clearly marked, with traffic lights just for the bikes, and it makes it really easy to go wherever you want, whether it be the beach or through town, using a very safe bike path," he said. "I think what really differentiates us is not just the quality of the bike lanes, but the thought that goes into them, where people really respect the bike lanes, and there's always some big event to go to that is so easily accessed by bike."

Go 'Bike Crazy'

The Danish don't mind being called crazy, if it's in reference to the bike-minded philosophy of their capital city of Copenhagen. Half its residents are bicycle commuters, and its tourists are quick to adopt that mode of transit as the ideal way to see the city. It even has its own Cycling Embassy, whose main goal is to spread the bicycle culture far and wide. It recently rolled out the first of 26 planned routes that will comprise a citywide cycle superhighway which, at completion time, will be 11 miles of uninterrupted riding. 

Biking downtown is a breeze, too, according to visitors. "The streets are narrow, some cobblestoned, and it's often a tight squeeze between cars and bicycles, but bicycles, as always, are given deference," Jim Callo recalled in his Huffington Post travel blog.  

That deference is most often attributed to a great love of, and respect for, the environment. "Danes see nature as a sacred haven,” Copenhagen native Mia Kristine Jessen Petersen told the BBC. “We do whatever we can to take care of the nature we have in the cities and to get more.”

Family rides bikes through CopenhagenCopenhagen is frequently regarded as an ideal city for cyclists. (Photo: Niclas Jessen/VisitDenmark)

The best part of the bike-friendly movement, Clark said, is that it's caught on: You no longer have to convince the rest of the world to get on board. Now that we're well into the 21st century, the push toward greener living and more sustainable transportation has resonated, and there are very few municipalities that haven't adopted at least some of these bike-friendly philosophies. 

"What has been most striking to me as I travel around is just how much excitement there is among city leaders to make streets more livable – walkable and bikeable," Clark said. "No longer do we need to spend so much effort trying to convince people that this is a good thing. They get it!"


Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows
What makes a bicycle-friendly city?
Portland, Tel Aviv and Copenhagen – perfect cycling towns.